Employers tended to design physical wellness programs around exercise. They offer discounted gym memberships, steps programs and other fitness-focused activities with the goal of helping employees lose weight, achieve better health, and lower their employer healthcare costs.

It hasn’t worked.

Despite encouraging employees to exercise more, the results have been dismal. Research shows that obesity levels are higher than ever, and 60% of Americans have at least one chronic disease.

The problem? Most wellness programs fail to emphasize healthy eating.

While exercise is important, and contributes to cardiovascular health, higher bone density and lower stress, exercise alone can’t offset the effects of a bad diet in losing weight or minimizing the risk of chronic illness, both of which lead to poor health and higher employer healthcare costs.

Accordingly, employers should double down on healthy eating, helping employees eat better both on and off the job. This should become their top priority to boost employee physical well-being, and in turn lower their healthcare costs and boost employee productivity.

Healthy eating, when done consistently and over the long term, can help employees lose weight, even with minimal exercise. It can also become a catalyst that makes people more likely to exercise and live healthy lifestyles.
Health officials have been warning about food-related health for decades.

In 2001, the Surgeon General’s Call to Action recognized obesity as a nationwide epidemic, when 30% of Americans were obese. Since then, the numbers have gone up, with 42% of Americans considered obese in 2018.

This health epidemic is caused largely by poor diet. According to the CDC, 90% of Americans do not eat recommended amounts of fruits and vegetables, which can “….help reduce the risk of many leading causes of illness and death, including heart disease, type 2 diabetes, some cancers and obesity.”

Processed foods are also a factor. According to The Extraordinary Science of Addictive Junk Food, a 2013 report that appeared in the New York Times, marketing by the processed food industry, growing fast-food lifestyles, and increased consumption of sugary beverages have conditioned our pallets to make unhealthy foods almost irresistible.

On top of this, processed foods are marketed and priced in ways to appeal to low income, time-starved families. A report on marketing for breakfast cereals found an overlap between cereals with the worst nutritional ratings and those marketed most aggressively to children.

This combination of poor eating habits, the ubiquity of unhealthy food, and a general lack of consumer awareness about healthy eating explains the rise in obesity and poor health. It also shows why employers must help employees adopt healthy eating as the way of better physical well-being.

Is healthy eating really the key to achieving better health outcomes? The Returns On Wellbeing Institute asked Dr. David Katz, a globally-recognized expert in diet and nutrition. In a recent video interview, he emphasized the primary role of healthy eating to achieve better health.

“Sleep matters, stress matters, exercise matters, avoiding toxins matters,” said Katz. “But if we were going to pick one variable that matters most in the modern world, it would be diet.” (the full video interview is available here)

In another interview, Katz explained how exercise alone is futile in helping people lose weight. “Time and schedules tend to limit how many calories most of us can expend in daily physical exertion, whatever our devotion to exercise.”

According to Katz, both diet and exercise are important to health, and exercise is important in weight maintenance. But to lose weight, the preferential focus needs to be on controlling calories in, more than calories out.

For example, if an employee eats several cookies that total 450 calories, they’d have to walk at least 4 miles at a brisk pace, or 60 minutes, just to burn it off.

“Even if a junk food diet, conjoined to daily exercise, allowed for maintenance of an ‘ideal’ weight, it would not do the same for the more important measure: health,” said Katz.

Accordingly, it’s far easier (and more realistic) for employees to lose that same number of calories by reducing caloric intake and boosting employee health.

Programs That Help Employees Eat Better

Many Americans have not learned the basics of a good, evidence-based diet. They succumb to marketing for “bad” foods, eat fast food on the go, and don’t know how to prepare healthy meals at home that taste good and actually cost less than unhealthy alternatives.

But the inconvenient truth is that unhealthy food is often cheaper and more convenient. And many find that it tastes better. That’s a lot to overcome.

Yet, employers can help employees understand why and how to eat better and make healthy eating a realistic, convenient and appealing default option both inside and outside the workplace. This will move employees out of chronic illness danger zones and toward healthier and more productive lives.

If done correctly, this is the type of program that can see high, if not total participation. After all, everyone eats. Unlike exercise programs that require extra time and a lot of effort and initiative, well-designed healthy eating programs can become far more popular if presented optimally.

1 Focus On Healthy Lifestyles

Wellness programs often start with outdated assumptions about diet, obesity and weight loss. They measure success by smaller waists and weigh-ins (which can be shameful and humiliating).

Instead, physical health initiatives must promote and support healthy lifestyles rather than idealized body images, with healthy eating as a foundational priority, over short term diets and weight loss programs that have a proven 97% fail rate.

The CDC’s Dietary Guidelines for Americans 2015–2020 outlines a healthy eating plan around the following:
Emphasizes fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and fat-free or low-fat milk and milk products
Includes lean meats, poultry, fish, beans, eggs, and nuts
Is low in saturated fats, trans fats, cholesterol, salt (sodium), and added sugars
Stays within your daily calorie needs
Employers should develop programs that follow these guidelines and incorporate healthy eating into everyday habits. Start by helping employees eat better at work, including:

Healthy food choices in workplace vending machines that cost less (subsidize if you have to)
Healthy food choices in cafeterias and break rooms
Healthy snacks for conferences (rather than candy or cookies)
Holding a farmer’s market once a week
An employee refrigerator to store healthy food from home
Discourage eating at desks
What happens off the job, when employees are on the run or at home with their families, has to become part of the equation to living a healthy eating lifestyle and overcoming decades of unhealthy eating habits.

2 Education and Encouragement

Don’t assume employees understand what it really means to eat healthy, or that they fully appreciate the health risks of eating too much sugar, processed foods or not enough fruits and vegetables.

Employers should develop healthy eating education programs that include:

Lunch-and-learn speakers (bring in a nutritionist)
Classes on how to read food labels
Healthy eating assessment tools (like Dr. David Katz’ Diet ID)
Meet employees where they are and demystify healthy eating and address socioeconomic or regional biases on how they approach food. Show how healthy eating does not mean eliminating all your favorite foods, but eating them in moderation, and choosing or making healthier alternatives.

Show employees that healthy eating does not have to be boring, and how it can save money, boost their health, and taste good with:

Healthy cooking classes
Healthy catered events
Healthy eating potluck Fridays
Company healthy foods cookbooks
Healthy dining out options
Shopping services
Prepared food services

3 Cost and Affordability

For time and cash-strapped employees, education is not enough. Depending on what one buys, and where one shops, healthy eating can be more expensive than buying processed or fast food.

Employers can institute programs that offer advice on minimizing the costs of healthy eating, or helping employees affordably access healthy food through farmers’ markets, discount produce stores and even discount purchasing.

Another aspect is helping employees compare what they already spend on less-than-healthy choices to show that healthy eating can actually lower their immediate expenses.

For example, a bottle of Coke costs more than water. Making coffee at home costs ⅓ of a Dunkin Donuts medium coffee (and there’s no waiting line).

Here are other ways employers can help employees save money:

Show where to shop for less expensive healthy food
Negotiate company discounts from local food stores
Show how to save money (e.g home-made salad dressings)

4 Time and Convenience

Time-crunched lifestyles are a challenge for many employees who only have so much time to prepare healthy meals.

Employers can combine education and resources including:

At-work delivery of prepared, healthy take-home meals
Sharing quick and easy healthy meal recipes
Meal planning services and food delivery options
Pre-made healthy breakfasts (e.g., oatmeal bars)
Batch cooking (cooking in bulk and freezing)
Consider workplace chat rooms, bulletin boards, or websites where employees can post and exchange ideas, information and recipes. This can reinforce and support a workplace community of healthy eating and generate excitement.

The road to healthy eating is not always easy. In my own life, I’ve always been a gym-rat, believing I could lose weight if I exercised more. But it didn’t work because after I exercised, I ate with abandon, and bad eating habits explained why I carried 25 extra pounds on my 6-foot frame.

A few years ago, I became more thoughtful of how I ate. I switched from large portions of meat to more fruits, vegetables and nuts. I stopped eating indulgent snacks (ice cream) before bedtime.

The result? I lost 25 pounds over two years and kept it off. More importantly, I’m off blood pressure medicine and I significantly lowered my cholesterol.

Responsible employers owe it to their employees, and to their bottom lines, to make healthy eating a top priority. As I learned, healthy eating does not have to be boring. But it requires a lifelong journey that starts gradually and leads to a stronger sense of well-being and self-esteem. And just plain feeling better.

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